Front Porch Blog

Concerns Grow Over the EPA’s Stance on Selenium Pollution

Protect Appalachia's Waterways from Toxic Selenium Pollution

In February, we wrote about the new selenium water quality standards being proposed by the Kentucky Division of Water and urged concerned citizens to express their concern to the state. Now, Kentucky has gone ahead with its proposal, submitting the new standards to the EPA for review. While the EPA may deny Kentucky’s proposed standards, concerns are growing that the EPA, influenced by states beholden to their mining industries, may release its own inadequate standard. That is why we are urging people to tell EPA to stop Kentucky, and to require strong, enforceable standards in every state.

Kentucky High Selenium Coal Seems

Selenium is of particular concern in Kentucky and other Central Appalachian states because it is often released into streams through mountaintop removal coal mining and is toxic to aquatic life at very low levels. Even though many high-selenium coal seams are mined in Kentucky, companies typically claim there will be no selenium discharge when first applying for a permit, so that the pollutant is not included on the permit. Selenium has rarely been included on mining permits in Central Appalachia, effectively allowing companies to avoid monitoring or treating it, unless citizens force them to with lawsuits. A recent victory in a lawsuits over illegal selenium discharges from a Virginia surface mining operation indicates that selenium pollution is a widespread problem at mountaintop removal mines across Central Appalachia.

Kentucky has faced increased pressure from citizens and the EPA to include selenium standards on pollution discharge permits, so that water quality is adequately protected. Unfortunately for the coal companies, selenium is expensive to treat and difficult to keep out of streams impacted by surface mining in high-selenium coal seams. Adding selenium to permits would mean that many coal companies have to start paying for a much larger portion of the damage they create. It appears that the state is helping coal companies find a way to avoid responsibility for selenium discharges. By increasing the legal limit of selenium allowed in streams and including fish tissue-based standards that are difficult, if not impossible to enforce, the state will allow many companies to continue to skirt their responsibility to the land and the people of Kentucky.

The Kentucky Division of Water has proposed to increase the acute selenium standard from 20 parts per billion (ppb) in water to 258 ppb in water, and the chronic standard from 5 ppb in water to 8.6 parts per million (ppm) in fish tissue. Not only is the state increasing the legal level of selenium in streams, but they are also moving to a fish tissue standard that may be unenforceable. Selenium bioaccumulates in aquatic life, meaning that even at low water concentrations, it builds up in fish, leading to deformities and reproductive failures. Companies will not be required to monitor fish tissue on a regular basis, unless selenium reaches a certain threshold in the stream – by then, fish may have already been killed off by selenium, or by a host of other pollutants common below mines. If there are no fish to test, you can’t violate the chronic standard, right? Even if some fish are still available for testing, if they already have a high level of selenium, it may be too late to reverse the damage, especially in sensitive species such as blue gill and catfish.

These blue gills were collected below the site of TVA’s 2008 Kingston Coal Ash spill. These fish have “pop-eye”, a deformity caused by selenium pollution causing their eyes bulge out of their heads. These fish had selenium levels of 2.5-6.5ppm, well below Kentucky’s newly proposed standard of 8.6 ppm for fish tissue.

The EPA has been moving slowly toward publishing selenium standards of its own, since it withdrew its 2004-2005 standards after misinterpreting key scientific research. Because of the delay, the EPA informed states that they may create their own standards, if supported by science. Other states are taking Kentucky’s lead on selenium pollution – West Virginia has recently moved to change its selenium standards as well. And least you think this is only a Central Appalachian issue, the same issue has been occurring with mining in western states.

Selenium is becoming a pollutant of national concern. Many are worried that even if the EPA denies Kentucky’s proposed selenium standards, the EPA may cave to pressure from the mining industry and release another set of inadequate standards, which would apply to the entire country. If the EPA raises the allowable level of selenium in streams, it will effectively give mining companies free license to discharge excessive amounts of selenium into our waterways, and take away citizens’ ability to challenge these discharges.

Just last week, Gina McCarthy was confirmed as the new head of the EPA. Please contact Administrator McCarthy to urge her to reject Kentucky’s proposed selenium water quality standards and to require strong, enforceable water-column based standards that will protect all aquatic life.

As coal reserves in Central Appalachia continue to be used up and other energy sources continue to out-compete coal, it is imperative that we do everything we can to prevent further damage to the land and the wildlife in Central Appalachia. Only with healthy ecosystems and healthy communities, can Kentucky hope to emerge from the changing economic landscape with a stronger and more just economy.





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  1. Erin on October 23, 2013 at 12:37 pm

    That’s a good question Rick. The answer is a bit complicated, but I’ll give you the short answer. Selenium is toxic to aquatic life at low levels (about 5 ug/L). In contrast, iron and manganese limits for surface mines are about 1000 times higher (general the limits are somewhere between 2 mg/L and 6 mg/L – which would be 2000 ug/L and 6000 ug/L). So when a company needs to treat for selenium, they need to be sure not to leave much behind. Another issue is that different forms of selenium (such as selenate and selenite) behave differently depending on the pH of the water, so both these factors have to be taken into account when choosing a type of treatment. Lastly, selenium from coal mining and coal burning is often found in conjunction with high concentrations of sulfate. Some treatments, such as ion exchange and reverse osmosis treat both selenate and sulfate. Since sulfate is found in much higher concentrations, you often have to get rid of all the sulfate to effectively treat the selenate.

  2. Rick Phelps on October 11, 2013 at 1:43 pm


    Why is it more difficult to remove Selenium from mining wastes than other trace metals?

    The bioaccumulation effects seem to be like Hg. Nasty.

    Thanks for the Se info and keeping the heat on EPA and the State agencies !!

  3. sandy mcnamee on September 7, 2013 at 3:52 am


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